December 19th, 2018
An exhibition in Paris reveals the extraordinary power of Dave Heath’s midcentury photographs.
By Violaine Boutet de Monvel
In the fall of 1952, at the age of twenty-one, Dave Heath was drafted into the US Army. He trained as a machine gunner to fight overseas during the Korean War, serving in the South against the communist North. Although peace still has yet to be declared between the two Koreas, the July 1953 Armistice Agreement implemented an immediate ceasefire. Until the end of his military service, Heath dedicated his off-duty time to photography, documenting the melancholy among his fellow soldiers. He was particularly drawn to the quiet intensity of their self-absorbed expressions while resting, further crystallizing a strange stillness in their bodies. Closing themselves off, if only for an instant, GIs would allow their minds to wander away from the hostile surroundings. Lost in silent thoughts, longings, or fears, they just waited, perhaps, to finally go home, while others never would; thirty-three thousand of them had already given their lives in “The Forgotten War.” This very peculiar look, when one’s field of vision temporarily deserts the outside world to turn inward instead, became the leitmotif of Heath’s candid style.
Once Heath returned to the United States in the spring of 1954, he traveled from Philadelphia to Chicago and New York, where he stayed until 1970. This fall, Le Bal in Paris presented over 150 pictures from this period in Dialogues with Solitudes, the late photographer’s first European retrospective. It is titled after A Dialogue with Solitude, a photobook published in 1965 that took Heath four years to conceive. (The original maquette is on display at the exhibition’s entrance, along with some of his portraits of soldiers in Korea.) In the book, a masterpiece of visual poetry, street photographs from distinct places and times are juxtaposed to summon pure emotions, which the show also pays homage to by following no chronology. Vibrating like the many tones of a poignant scale of solitude, the pictures at Le Bal are arranged around narrow white blocks to evoke Heath wandering the streets like a true Baudelairean flaneur (and the “spleen” or gloom that comes with it).
While close to the humanist trend that developed at the time, Heath’s practice didn’t share the latter’s air of innocence. His desire to become a photographer was originally sparked by Ralph Crane’s “Bad Boy’s Story,” a photo-essay published in Life magazine in May 1947. It followed Butch, a young orphan in Seattle, whose difficulties in relating to others strongly resonated with Heath’s own journey: Heath was abandoned by his parents when he was only four years old, which left him to yearn for intimate connections that he contrastingly sought behind a camera. While he took his lonely quest to the streets and their random encounters, the absent eyes of ordinary people caught in moments of complete introspection could only mirror his own emotional homelessness. “I believe it all goes back to the loss of my mother,” he told Michael Torosian in a 1987 interview, republished in the exhibition catalogue. “I’ve been creating this work, trying to get to the point of mourning, but it sucks me down more and more instead of releasing me.”
In New York, Heath’s search led him straight to Washington Square and the 7 Arts Coffee Gallery, where members of the beat generation regularly met at the time, including the poets and writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He photographed both men reading, along with other leading figures. This community of nonconformists, who didn’t believe in the postwar American dream and who sought artistic freedom away from materialism, offered Heath, for the first time in his life, a sense of belonging. Like the beatniks, Heath was simply more attuned to the shadows. His remarkable printing technique—a combination of burning and bleaching that he borrowed from W. Eugene Smith—further isolated the everyday strangers he crossed paths with through sharpened black-and-white contrasts, beautifully highlighting the depth of their inward gaze.
In 1970, Heath moved to Toronto, where he taught at Ryerson University. He died in 2016, leaving behind an outstanding body of work, which, after an interlude of obscurity, would have sunk into oblivion if it weren’t for the growing attention it has gained over the last few years. His “inner landscapes,” as he referred to his portraits, touch the awe of the sublime in a Romantic sense. Instead of contemplating the decline of civilization through the reign of nature, Heath contemplated the desolation of the soul, to which the eyes are the windows, and tried to overcome it through photography. “When you live a life where you feel you don’t belong, everything in chaos,” he said, “maybe you sense that the control over the chaos is the structuring of art.”
Violaine Boutet de Monvel is a writer and translator living in Paris.
Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes is on view at Le Bal, Paris, through December 23, 2018.